I’ve been thinking a fair amount about the Open Course Ware movement lately.  I use the MIT Open Course Ware Intro to Computer Science and Programming course.  In general I believe highly in the Open Learning movement.  As an active member, I realize how much of a difference having access to these materials makes.  It allows a person access not only to course materials, but lectures, readings, and sometimes forums where one can discuss the materials with others currently following it.  

My current tendencies -  I do not currently interact with the online forums and chat rooms for the Intro to Computer Science course I follow.  I have chatted once or twice within the study group provided, but not at any depth.  Despite my lack of interaction I’ve still noticed that the amount of students participating in the course along with me is small.  There are moderators that interact with the chat rooms and forums but they are also only interacting intermittently, as is appropriate considering the current volume in students.  There is simply not a critical mass of students involved to require more constant interaction.  

The thing I needed to make this work - The interactions that occur with this course are almost entirely via text, excepting recorded lectures available online.  Personally my best learning tends to come from verbal conversations I have about the course material.  Those conversations are what help me to process and better remember the information I am reviewing.  That is not much of an option considering the course.  Luckily I have an additional resource of Robey (efficient and experienced programmer, who has taught before and acts like a tutor).  With him I can have the discussions needed, and ask questions regarding many of the things that other would be programmers might have when beginning this course.  Therefore I have had the necessary verbal communication I need to really learn the materials.  If I hadn’t had this resource, I cannot imagine myself having learned the material anywhere near as well.  Having someone to talk to about the course is a serious advantage.  

Despite my appreciation and support of Open Course Ware(OCW), I realize that unless I had someone who could either, a) act as a tutor and help answers as they come up, or at the very least b) be someone who would listen to my thoughts and chat with me about what I am learning, it might not work so well for me.  Due to these concerns, I feel that finding a way to integrate more verbal communication is necessary for a higher level of success for OCW.  It would make the courses accessible to a wider audience.  There are many out there that would greatly benefit from OCW, this would be a great way to make those new feel welcome.

By verbal communication I don’t mean that OCW needs to create an extension to the History Channel.  Not that the History Channel isn’t awesome, but that’s not what OCW is all about.  There are some great options out there that solve this problem.  One of the best ones I’ve seen yet is Google Hangout.  I think it would be awesome if some of the OCW courses would host Google Hangout sessions once a week, so students following the courses could stop by and chat with someone about their problems.  There are graduate students already assisting with the online text chatter, why not up it a bit and talk with people face to face?  It might also provide for the development of study groups originating from the students themselves.

Other interesting tidbits about online learning - Previously I worked for Ecampus at Oregon State University.  Ecampus offers online courses and degrees, and when you graduate you receive an official degree from Oregon State University.  It’s a pretty cool place, and the staff is made up of some pretty cool people.  Through my time there I learned about virtual classrooms.  One uses a virtual classroom by creating a personal 3d avatar, and through the world, attending your classes and chatting with classmates.  Bascially World of Warcraft for educational purposes only.  However, as far as I’m aware, Ecampus doesn’t offer virtual classrooms at this time.  Nevertheless I feel that such virtual classrooms might offer another solution to this problem.  

What else is it about OCW that needs tweaking? A higher level of organization of the course materials needs to be implemented.  While the Intro to Computer Science course materials are organized, and the readings are set up with the course timeline, there are still some inconsistencies I’ve found in the assigned problems.  Often I’ve found myself lost, simply because things are written out with less flow.  The current course materials provided were originally created for a live audience.  Online students don’t get the benefit of the professor emphasizing that one or another course reading is more important, or when a professor points to particular aspects in the homework assignments.  I’ve often found myself straining to keep up with a lecture, because class handouts that are not included in the course materials.  Both professors will often refer to class handouts, and without them you’re a little lost.

Lastly, many OCW courses are created by high experts in the field.  While it is fantastic that these people are taking their time to provide this information for the public at large, it creates a problem.  Many experts tend to have a vocabulary and style of writing that is consistent with their field.  This makes it sometimes difficult for the beginning learner to make a connection.  Often I’ve found an assignment written in a such a way that makes it very difficult for me to understand.  When I have Robey review it to help me understand what they’re asking for, he will often comment as to how it’s almost written for a computer scientist.  While it’s important to provide exposure to such writing styles, such a block in the beginning can highly deter an online learner from feeling able to learn the materials.  

Imagine random Joe who starts following an OCW course.  Things are going along swimmingly, then one day he hits a snag.  He’s having difficulties understanding the materials.  He goes online to the study group and tries to contact someone regarding the problem.  He gets some help, but for some reason it’s not hitting the target.  Now he’s finding it hard to go any further in the course until he’s gotten a chance to talk to someone about it (either via text or verbally)again.  Considering the fact that random Joe is following this course in his spare time, after his 40 hours a week and other responsibilities are taken care of.  That snag has now grown into a mountain,  and the effort to reach the end result doesn’t seem as worth it anymore.  

What I’m trying to get at is this.  Open Course Ware is an amazing offering for many people.  It provides them with the information and instruction they need, as long as they don’t really come up against any serious learning hurdles.  Once that happens it’s hard to imagine that a large population of those learners will continue following the course.  If you want to keep these people active within the community, and for the community to subsequently grow, you’re going to need to provide more access opportunities.  I’m not meaning tons of man hours, but simply allowing the students more tools to interact with either Grad students supporting the course, or simply more students following the course.  Many of the concerns I brought up above could be solved by simply giving students easier ways to interact with each other.  Provide them with a larger, easy to use, variety of ways to communicate about the information they’re learning.  If you can do that, then OCW is going to go somewhere and it’s going to make a bigger difference.